Saturday, April 13, 2019

Let’s Get the Band Back Together (One Last Time)! (or My 2018-2019 NBA Playoff Preview)

We have finally arrived at the NBA playoffs.

This season, my beloved Golden State Warriors are again the heavy favorites to seize and take home the Larry O’Brien Trophy. But the 2018-2019 NBA Playoffs will undoubtedly play out differently than recent postseasons. For one, with LeBronto’s move to the Western Conference, the Eastern Conference will send a team other than the Cavs to the Finals for the first time in four seasons. The Eastern Conference is relatively wide open with their top four teams—Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia, and Boston—having a legitimate chance to emerge.

In another anomaly, I think this NBA season is also markedly different because I think the only teams who have a puncher’s chance of beating the Warriors are out east, not within the Western Conference. Milwaukee is a long, athletic, sharp-shooting prototype similar to the dynastic Warriors. With superstar Kawhi Leonard, an emerging two-way star in Pascal Siakam and a deep bench, the Raptors can play a number of lineups, including small-ball lineups, with the very best. The Sixers traded for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris to form the most potent starting five outside of Golden State. And Boston added Warriors-killer Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward to their already-talented roster. (And if you’re the gambling type, holy shit, I think Boston would be the team with the most bang-for-buck upside to bet on, given how low their current odds are of winning the title.)

Here’s my picks for the opening round matchups:

Eastern Conference

(1)    Milwaukee vs. (8) Detroit
Milwaukee swept season series 4-0

Now that I’ve been putting down these predictions for the past few seasons, I don’t know how much weight I put on the season series record between two playoff opponents, but I think it is worth noting that the Bucks swept their four games against the Pistons by an average of 14.8 points per game, according to Oh, and did I mention Blake Griffin is hobbling on one leg since his left knee is busted?

Milwaukee in 4

(2)    Toronto vs. (7) Orlando
Season series tied 2-2

Along with the resilient Pacers, the 42-win Orlando Magic are undoubtedly one of the big surprises this season in the Eastern Conference. (Who the fuck thought they would be the playoff representatives for the Hanging Chad State?) Led by Steve Clifford, the Magic trot out the 5th stingiest scoring defense in the NBA (but their opponents did average a .456% shooting percentage, ranked 11th in the league). Meanwhile, Toronto is strong on both ends, fielding the 8th ranked scoring offense and the 9th ranked scoring defense.

Orlando’s making their first playoff appearance since 2012 while Toronto put all their motherfucking chips in before the season began by trading long-time Raptor DeMar DeRozan for a potential one-year-rental season out of Kawhi Leonard. The Claw and Marc Gasol are both returning to the playoffs for the first time since the 2016-2017 season. They’ll be hungry for this stage. Orlando will be pumped to return to the NBA’s second season, which should be good for at least one win against the legit title contender Raptors.

Toronto in 5

(3)    Philadelphia vs. (6) Brooklyn
Season series tied 2-2

Even though I hardly watched either team this season, I’m with the boys at The Ringer NBA Show when they predicted that this should be a competitive series. Relatively new Sixers GM Elton Brand just about cashed out the remainder of his chips from The Process in order to garner one of the most talented starting five line-ups in the NBA. Meanwhile, Brooklyn is at least one full season ahead in their rebuilding process. They have a talented mixture of young, up-and-coming players and veterans led by former Laker castaway, D’Angelo Russell, who turned himself into an Eastern Conference All-Star. This season, the Nets’ bench got press for their joyful and supportive reactions for their teammates (which is the polar opposite of, say, the Boston Celtics). Their chemistry is palpable.

Brooklyn is well coached by Kenny Atkinson. Aided by their depth, they’re a team that is willing to play a number of offensive and defensive styles. I anticipate they will play a man off of Ben Simmons to dare him to shoot anywhere eight feet from the basket.

Despite their juggernaut of talent in their starting five, the Sixers have two deadly flaws—which will be exposed at some point in these playoffs—and that is their piss-poor bench and their crunch-time offense with a 6’10 point guard who can’t fucking shoot the ball. (His shot chart this year is similar if not worse than this):

Philadelphia in 6

(4)    Boston vs. (5) Indiana
Boston won season series 3-1

Although they’ve struggled far more than most predicted before the season, I think this series will highlight the abundance of talent the Celtics have. Marcus Smart will be out of the series due to an oblique injury (which will jeopardize his availability for the next round as well), but the Celtics have Gordon Hayward who can step in and gobble more minutes. After struggling with consistency all season, Hayward’s been cooking the past eight games; he shot 50% or better in 7 of those 8 games while averaging 16.4 points per game in about 30 minutes. If he keeps it up, he will have arrived at the most pristine moment for his team.

Indiana’s a proud and well-coached team. Nate McMillan deserves Coach of the Year consideration for pushing this team to 48 wins despite having Victor Oladipo for less than half of the season. But without an All-NBA player like Oladipo, they’re severely outgunned in this matchup.

Boston in 5

Western Conference

(1)    Golden State vs. (8) LA Clippers
Golden State won season series 3-1

Barring any major injuries, the most intriguing facet of this series might be Kevin Durant’s looming free agency and the fact that the Clippers should be one of the handful of teams who have a legitimate chance of landing him. (And, for what it’s worth, I predict KD will choose between the Clippers and Warriors.) Led by Doc Rivers and arguably his finest coaching performance ever, the Clippers are a feisty, cohesive, talented bunch. Though no one will likely explicitly admit it, will their players treat this series like a tryout for KD’s services? And will the Staples Center crowd do anything once this series gets out of hand?

Golden State in 5

(2)    Denver vs. (7) San Antonio
Season series tied 2-2

I’ve been wrong with enough previous playoff series predictions to know that there just about has to be at least one playoff upset in the opening round. So this season, I’m purposely picking an upset, and I think the Spurs are the likeliest to pull it off. My rationale is simple (and sound, IMHO):

  • With the exception of Paul Millsap and Isaiah Thomas (who is a shadow of himself, sadly) this Nuggets team has a Rockies-sized dearth of playoff experience.
  • By contrast, the Spurs have a Texas-sized wealth of playoff experience. That shit matters in the playoffs.
  • The Spurs are led by the greatest NBA coach I’ve ever seen. That shit matters in the playoffs.
  • Come playoff time, Coach Pop and his staff have a propensity for identifying the best way to thwart and slow down their opponent’s offense.
  • Derrick White has been a beast on defense, especially after the All-Star break—and he’s had success this season in defending Denver’s Jamal Murray, who will be the bellwether of this series.
  • Both teams—including the Nuggets (20-21)—have shitty road records.
  • Thusly, I think the Spurs have the best shot of pulling off a road victory and then maintaining their home court advantage.

Shots fired: San Antonio in 6

(3)    Portland vs. (6) Oklahoma City
Oklahoma City swept season series 4-0

Although the season series tells a different tale, this should be one of the best series in the opening round. Hopefully.

Rip City’s held it together despite Jusuf Nurkic’s devastating injury, closing out the season with an 8-2 record. Meanwhile, impacted by Paul George’s shoulder injury, OKC stumbled down the homestretch of the NBA season. All four Thunder victories against the Trailblazers were before mid-March, before Nurkic broke his leg.

A playoff loss—let alone another brutal playoff performance—could spell curtains for Blazers coach Terry Stotts. I think his proud, resilient team won’t allow themselves to be swept again in the opening round. But can they beat the Thunder? This is probably the hardest series to predict because it could break in lots of ways, including a triumphant Blazers series.

Oklahoma City in 6

(4)    Houston vs. (5) Utah
Season series tied 2-2

The Jazz were eliminated in the second round last year by the Rockets after they spread the floor with 3-point shooters and continually switched Rudy “The Stifle Tower” Gobert out on the perimeter where Harden, Paul, and Eric Gordon feasted on the rangy Frenchman and put him on skates with fierce one-on-one drives to the cup. It’s going to be more of the same boring yet tactically sound shit this time around.

The Jazz made some offseason moves to better allow them to play small, switchy lineups against teams like the Rockets, and they’ll serve Houston a little of their own medicine with Donovan Mitchell taking Harden to town. But I don’t think it will make much of a difference.

I won’t be surprised if the Rockets close this out in five, but I will be optimistic that Jazz coach Quin Snyder will find a tactic to lower Harden’s offensive efficiency enough to pull off two victories.

Houston in 6

Looking down the playoff bracket, here’s my predictions for the subsequent rounds:

Most Likely Upset in the Second Round: Boston over Milwaukee
Western Conference Finals matchup: Golden State vs. Oklahoma City (let’s call it the Western Conference Cupcake Finals)
Eastern Conference Finals matchup: Milwaukee vs. Toronto
NBA Finals prediction: Warriors in 6 over the Raptors (ha!, this was my same prediction last season)

No comments:

Post a Comment